The ties that bind

NS & Fellows' Associates round table - The decline in manufacturing and 9/11 are just two developmen

Since resigning as Secretary of State for International Development in May 2003 over the war in Iraq, Clare Short has found cause to attack her former colleagues in government over a whole host of issues - and social cohesion, it turns out, is no exception. At the third New Statesman/Fellows' Associates round table on community justice, held a short distance from her constituency in Birmingham, Short argued that certain policies not only did nothing to improve the social problems found in the city and beyond, but helped to create them. The government talks reverently about choice, she said, but allowing individuals to choose hospitals and schools serves to break down the shared experience necessary to create a truly cohesive society.

In such a society, according to a report published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in May, all communities feel they belong, the diversity of people's backgrounds is appreciated, people from different backgrounds have similar opportunities, and strong relationships exist between people from different backgrounds in schools, neighbourhoods and the workplace.

Many factors have threatened such harmony in recent years - for example, the decline of manufacturing and trade unionism, the ease of international travel and migration, high-tech communications, the events and repercussions of 9/11 - which have had an impact on communities across Britain and overseas.

But Birmingham is a particularly fitting place for a discussion of social cohesion. Other than London, it is the UK's most diverse city. The census taken in 2001 revealed that 30 per cent of the city's inhabitants were from ethnic minorities - a figure that continues to rise. And although Birmingham may have avoided the explosion of racial tension that has hit northern towns such as Oldham and Bradford in recent years, the city is still divided geographically along ethnic lines. Moreover, if equality of opportunity and social provision are criteria for a cohesive society, Birmingham has a long way to go. In the Sparkbrook area, for example, 60 per cent of residents are Asian and roughly 43 per cent are unemployed. In Sutton Four Oaks, on the other hand, just 4.9 per cent of residents are from ethnic minorities and roughly 70 per cent of those eligible to work are in employment. Meanwhile, the Heart of Birmingham Primary Care Trust has outlined the health problems prevalent in the majority black and Asian areas immediately surrounding the city centre.

According to Black City, White Mask, a report published by the Birmingham Race Action Partnership the same year as the census: "If a newcomer to Birmingham arrived at New Street Station and walked from there into the city centre, they would be struck by the diversity. However, if they then took a journey from the city centre to Solihull, they would witness a pattern of segregation that, if they dug beneath the surface, they would see as grounded and entrenched in poverty and disadvantage . . ."

So what progress has been made in recent years, and how should cities such as Birmingham move forward? Numerous bodies and schemes have been created at a national and local level, with the intention of promoting social cohesion. For example, the government's Social Exclusion Unit and Active Communities Directorate seek to integrate groups and individuals through policies on housing, employment, political participation, healthcare and education, while local initiatives such as community empowerment networks and neighbourhood renewal strategies help to bring people together through involvement in local decision-making, trying to ensure this reflects the issues which specifically concern them.

As Vij Randeniya, the West Midlands deputy chief fire officer, pointed out, programmes aimed at creating social cohesion should not enforce the meshing of communities against their members' wishes. The word "safety" cropped up frequently during the debate. It was argued that a successful community was one whose members felt safe within their neighbourhood, and that policies had to take account of how individuals often felt safest among people of the same ethnic and social background. The segregation visible in Birmingham could therefore be, in some ways, a reflection of individuals preferring to live alongside those who were most like themselves.

Haifaa Jawad of the University of Birmingham agreed that forced assimilation could be damaging. She stressed the importance of education in helping young people to understand and appreciate the cultures of their peers. For Jawad, specialist religious schools could play a useful part in the education system, provided there was emphasis on learning about the religious beliefs, traditions and cultural practices of other groups in society.

Julian Corner of the Revolving Doors Agency, a mental health charity, and Shanti Bromfield of St Basil's, a homelessness charity that works specifically with young people, discussed the problem of creating a sense of belonging among the most deprived sections of society. Corner argued that it was difficult to cultivate citizenship among individuals who "fall through the gaps" and were systematically denied the most basic social provision. Mental illness, drug abuse, homelessness and persistent offending frequently went hand in hand, and sufferers became entirely distanced from the communities where they lived.

The round-table participants were concerned about the exclusion of young people in particular. According to Paul Scott-Lee, chief constable of West Midlands Police, the generation gap is increasing all the time. His force receives call after call complaining about antisocial behaviour from Birmingham's youth, and the calls are just as likely to come from residents in their mid-twenties as they are from the elderly. There was general agreement that there was a lack of activities available to young people in the evenings, and that, although loitering in the streets might be entirely innocent, it created fear among other members of the community. Bromfield pointed to the role that adults played in stereotyping young people as threatening. Failing to communicate with and listen to them, crossing the road to avoid groups and a lack of investment in education all served to marginalise young people, and this had implications for them in adult life.

Nathan Dennis of the Community Roots Enterprise Centre highlighted the media's role in entrenching stereotypes of young black men. Because "bad news sells", he said, coverage of gun crime was rarely balanced with positive reports of success within the affected communities. Bill Brown of the Disarm Trust said there was a lack of positive role models for young black men, and criticised the failure to address the issue of ethnic-minority representation at higher levels of government and in the public sphere.

Concerns were also raised that the materialist sentiment of hip-hop culture rubs off on young people who lack a sense of purpose beyond getting paid and buying expensive clothes, cars and jewellery. "Bling-bling", as Dennis put it, was about looking out for yourself and thus did not help to create community spirit or a sense of responsibility for the well-being of those around you.

For Short, this was not an indicator of spiritual bereavement, as Jawad claimed. Rather, it is simply "fashionable to be rude", and young people will always try to impress their friends. As for relations between young and old, she said that children and their grandparents remained close; any talk of a crisis was exaggerated. John Rice, chief executive of Erewash Council, said that only one of his councillors was in his twenties, and cited this as being indicative of the problem of encouraging political participation among young people. For Short, however, anyone wanting to be a councillor at 23 was "a very unique and complicated individual".

Lord Corbett and Scott-Lee put forward the housing estate of Castle Vale as an example of one place where consultation with residents had brought about real progress, creating a sustainable living space conducive to improving cross-community relations.

However, a common view among the participants was that effective change continued to be hindered by central government targets. Local governments had to adapt to a constant flow of initiatives and funding streams, said Rice, while Short decried the "Stalinist" bureaucracy that consumed vast resources but achieved nothing.

Dennis and Bromfield complained that they spent a large proportion of their time ticking boxes when they should have been helping their communities directly. Randeniya and Scott-Lee said that because they are forced to respond to all the complaints they receive, disproportionate amounts of their time and resources are spent on the "gobby middle classes".

There was a general feeling among the participants that the optimism of 1997 had subsided, and that the individualism of Thatcherism had, if anything, strengthened under new Labour, to the detriment of social cohesion. For them, it was the strength and compassion of active residents, local government workers, the police and emergency services, and community and voluntary groups that held the key to closer communities.

Participants

Jenni Murray - (Facilitator) Television and radio broadcaster
Shanti Bromfield - Divisional manager, St Basil's
Bill Brown - Chair, Disarm Trust; founder, Black and Minority Ethnic Tenants Advisory Network
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale - Former MP for Birmingham Erdington and Hemel Hempstead
Julian Corner - Chief executive, Revolving Doors Agency
Nathan Dennis - Project co-ordinator, Community Roots Enterprise Centre
Haifaa Jawad - Senior lecturer, University of Birmingham
David Meaden - Managing director, public services, Northgate Information Solutions
Vij Randeniya - Deputy chief fire officer, West Midlands Fire Service
John Rice - Chief executive, Erewash Borough Council
Paul Scott-Lee - Chief constable, West Midlands Police
Clare Short - MP for Birmingham Ladywood